This blogger has spent a lot of time in the boneyard. So much time, we dare say, that we’ve hung out more than some cemeteries’ (newer) full-time residents. To visit one is a whole enchilada experience: you get to be outside in the introvert’s version of Kennywood–usually alone, in near silence, on beautifully-cared-for grounds that feel like a wild city park. Often there are the deer and crows and opossums to back it up. But it’s a park alive (ironically) with stories and history, carved images and statuary. Any cemetery has way too much to take in for just a single visit.
What these hallowed grounds don’t tend to feature so often is the touch of the human hand. Typically, gravestones are professionally-cut, perfectly-engraved, production line affairs. They’re marvels of precision stone-cutting and restrained grace, symmetry and classical iconography.
Rarely, however, does one encounter a grave marker that was hand made by the grieving family. [An obvious exception to this is the “DIY gravestones of Highwood Cemetery” (Pittsburgh Orbit, Oct. 30 and Nov. 1, 2015).] It is especially rare to see a stone or tomb that looks like his or her bats-in-the-belfry aunt or brown bottle flu uncle would have built it.
That, however, is exactly what Beaver Cemetery’s James P. Leaf mausoleum looks like. At approximately the size of a one-car alley garage, it’s definitely the right scale for your typical double-crypt couple’s tomb–but it sure doesn’t look like one. There are none of the straight lines, white stone, or classical features we normally see. Mr. Leaf didn’t even receive the customary stained glass rear windows like we peeked in on in Allegheny Cemetery.
Instead, the monument has clearly been constructed by hand, from an oddball collection of irregular stones. These range from the size of a cantaloupe to huge boulders that would crush a house in their falling path. One of these massive rocks has been set to entirely block the front entrance to the tomb, leaving only an oxidized copper Leaf nameplate visible awkwardly above. Water-smoothed river pebbles have been used to create decorative features within the mortar walls and vertically-places stones sit on top to resemble crude castle battlements.
There is a maybe too-good-to-be-true story that the mausoleum was built with stones pulled from each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties that appears in several sources, all unsubstantiated.
James Pinney Leaf (1866-1949) seems an unlikely soul to spend eternity in such a ramshackle final resting place. The son of an engineer, Leaf followed in his father’s footsteps, earning a degree in engineering, serving in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War I, and working on projects and surveys in Rochester, PA, the Ohio canals, Pymatuning Reservoir, on Lake Erie, and along the Ohio River.
So how did a lifelong builder and engineer end up in a cattywumpus backyard barbeque of a crypt like this one? There’s got to be a great explanation here.
Spoiler Alert: We don’t know! The Orbit sat on this story for an entire year, dug into the books with the crew at the Carnegie Library’s Pennsylvania Room, consulted professional archivists, talked to Beaver Cemetery staff, and … Zilch. Goose egg. Bubkes. “Nothing burger”.
Who James P. Leaf was is well documented–Hillman Library has a huge collection of family papers–but it’s a total mystery how such an esteemed veteran, builder, and prominent community member ended up with this pile-of-rocks mausoleum.
It was a rough week–emotionally and physically. Nobody wants to hear about all that, but you’ll no doubt respect the need to just move on and let a mystery be its own mysterious self. Maybe by having this story out there someone who actually knows what’s up with the Leaf tomb can enlighten us and we can finally set the record straight.
Currently, we’re in the apex of leaf-changing glory. If you’re looking for a destination to get your fall colors on, you could do a lot worse than the fun drive out Route 65, past Punks Ice Cream and the murals of the Sewickley Speakeasy, to lovely little Beaver Cemetery. See what you can find out for ol’ Orbit, will you?
 University of Pittsburgh Library System, Leaf family papers.